THE SACRED EXPERIENCE OF LISTENING AND BEING HEARD

Many of my clients come to therapy because they have not been truly heard throughout their lives. Healing begins when the client feels heard by the therapist. When clients have an experience of being heard fully and without judgment by the therapist, they can take the experience of listening and being heard into their lives and experience the sacred space between themselves and others.

Being heard goes hand-in-hand with “active listening.”   Wikipedia describes  active listening as “a special way of reflecting back what the other person has expressed to let him/her know you are listening…. Active Listening is a restatement of the other person’s communication, both the words and the accompanying feelings, i.e., nonverbal cues—tone of voice, facial expression, body posture.”

Instead of active listening, we often interrupt the speaker with our own ideas or agenda, assume we know what the speaker is going to say and tune them out, get triggered by the depth of what is being said and shut down, or get distracted by our own thoughts.

Active listening involves one’s whole being. It is not just passive silence, but a way of using body, heart and mind to truly hear what the other person is saying and to convey that he or she is being heard. This is done through means such as paraphrasing, reflecting back what you heard, asking questions, maintaining eye contact or nodding your head.

Active listening is a mutual act between the listener and speaker. We listen not only to the words, but also to body language, inflection, tone and other modes of expression. For example, if a friend is telling a story about a great experience visiting family, but her facial expression seems sad, there may be something that is not being expressed in words.

The best instruction I have received for active listening is two words: “Be curious.” Using the example above, the listener might ask “your face looks sad to me when you just told me about your family visit. Is there anything you are sad about?” It takes practice to not assume that you know what is going on and to not judge what you have heard. Asking questions in this way allows both speaker and listener to go deeper and develop closeness and intimacy.

Something sacred happens through active listening and being heard. The Jewish theologian Martin Buber called this the “I and Thou” experience. A sacred space is created between two people when they truly listen and are heard. According to Buber, the ultimate sacred space is that between a person and God. In Buddhism, this can be the experience of our inherent Buddha Nature – the primordial wisdom and purity that exists in all of us at all times, but which we forget as we go through life and start to build defenses against being spontaneously present with ourselves and others.

Only by understanding that we are all in the same boat we call human life can we listen and be heard, with empathy and openness. Instead, we often view those with whom we relate as totally separate from us. We do so to protect ourselves from being seen, or to satisfy some agenda. Buber calls such an interaction “I and It” rather than I and Thou.

The experience of I and Thou can only be sustained when we are fully open and mindful, noticing when we shut down and protect ourselves or when we stop listening to another. Seeing when we shut down can be instructive. It can show us where we are stuck in not wanting to be close and intimate with others. By understanding the triggers that cause us to shut down and protect ourselves, we can develop compassion for ourselves and others and be fully being present with others, without an agenda or guardedness.

I have always found it interesting that the words “heard” and “heart” are so similar. Our wounded hearts can be healed by the mutual experience of listening with our whole body, heart and mind and being heard. We can then experience the sacred space of I and Thou between us.  As Zen Buddhist teacher Joan Halifax has said:

Listening means that we have stabilized our minds so completely thatthe person who is speaking can actually hear themselves through our stillness. It is a quality of radiant listening, of luminous listening, of vibrant listening, but it is also very still. It is listening with attention, with openheartedness, without prejudice. We listen with our being. We offer our whole listening body.[1]

 

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[1] Joan Halifax, in Gifts of the Spirit, by Philip Zaleski & Paul Kaufman (1997).

 

© 2017 Beth S. Patterson, MA, LPC. All rights reserved.

OVERCOMING THE NEGATIVITY BIAS: A MINDFULNESS APPROACH

As neuropsychologist and mindfulness teacher Rick Hanson says “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but like Teflon for positive ones.”[1] What Dr. Hanson describes is known as the “negativity bias.” The negativity bias is hardwired in the human brain. Early humans needed this brain bias for survival purposes. The negativity bias allowed our ancestors to learn behaviors that became hardwired in the brains of their descendants in order to avoid danger and stay alive. The negativity bias remains part of the human brain today, and impacts our wellbeing in many ways.

The Impact of the Negativity Bias in Daily Life

Research in neuroscience shows that the brain reacts more strongly to negative stimuli than positive ones. We hold on to negative memories much longer and more strongly than positive ones, like what Dr. Hanson describes as Velcro.  This hardwiring stimulates the brain’s fight, flight or freeze hyper-vigilant responses to perceived threats, and affects us physically, cognitively and emotionally.

On a physical level, hyper-vigilance affects our adrenal and cortisol systems, resulting in sleep disturbances, fatigue, shortness of breath and numerous other physical issues. Emotionally, we may experience anxiety, fear, confusion or anger. Cognitively, we may develop strong negative beliefs, such as “I don’t deserve love”, “I cannot trust others”, or “I am not safe.”

For example, if someone has experienced the sudden death of a loved one, she may react with great fear and anxiety each time she is unable to reach another loved one. If someone is judged or ridiculed at work for suggesting a novel approach to working with a challenge, he may be less inclined to offer suggestions again. And, if one grows up with an abusive parent, she may come to believe that she is unlovable and that no one can be trusted. These associations the brain makes are like tangled knots in a ball of thread that link new experiences with old negative experiences.

Overcoming the Negativity Bias through Mindfulness

The good news is that the negativity bias can be overcome through mindfulness, and the tangled knots of association can be loosened and untied. The first step is to become aware of the brain’s negativity bias and that the brain links different events and experiences together, like the 0’s and 1’s of a binary computer. This awareness helps us then determine if something we are experiencing is truly a threat to our safety or wellbeing. If it is a threat, we can take appropriate action. If it is not a threat, we can learn to let go of the impact of a perceived negative experience, seeing it for what it is.

Mindfulness can actually rewire the brain to hold on to positive experiences in a productive and healthy way – more like Velcro than Teflon. The practice of mindfulness meditation teaches us to be present, moment-to-moment, and not just live in our thoughts. The irony is that through mindfulness meditation, we become more aware of our thoughts. The difference is that we no longer need to get carried away by our thoughts, and expand a single thought into an epic novel. We learn to let thoughts go and return to the experience of the present moment.

Being mindful also makes us more aware of the negative and self-limiting thoughts that have kept us from being fully and joyfully alive. Mindfulness is not limited to sitting on a cushion and watching our breath. In fact, in addition to sitting meditation, I often “prescribe” mindful walking, mindful dish washing and mindful driving to my clients as ways to learn to be present with whatever it is they are experiencing. The key is to notice the thoughts and come back fully to whatever it is you are experiencing.

Without mindful awareness, our negative thoughts are the omnipresent background noise of our lives. Becoming aware of our negative self-talk and thoughts allows us to separate ourselves from them, to challenge and even eliminate them. Cognitive therapy, including mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, offers another way to do that, and works well with mindfulness practices.

The more present we are, moment-to-moment, the more we can experience the small joys of being alive.   We are more able to fully savor positive experiences and make them a part of who we are, without judgment. We come to realize that joy and presence is our birthright.

A highly effective way to rewire the brain to respond more to positive experiences is the “gratitude exercise”: Every night before you go to bed, write down five things you are grateful for that happened that day. When I assign this exercise to depressed clients, I may hear the complaint “but I have nothing to be grateful for.” I respond to this by pointing out positive things in the environment they can experience directly, such as a sunny day or a bird singing outside my office window.

The gratitude exercise and learning to be mindful in the present moment allow us to short circuit and rewire the brain’s negativity bias. We can then open our eyes and hearts to life, with all of its joys and sorrows, and fully appreciate who we are.

 

[1] R. Hanson, “Take in the Good”, www.rickhanson.net, June 2015.

 

 

© 2016 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.

 

STAYING SANE IN AN INSANE WORLD

The world around us may seem chaotic and downright insane these days. Here are some tips for remaining sane amidst the world’s seeming insanity:

Impose news and media “blackouts.” It is so easy to get caught up in the frenzy of the ever-changing news these days. Imposing limits on watching television and looking at and interacting with social media is of critical importance.

Limit news watching to one hour a day. The 24/7 news media like CNN work by sucking you in. Resist the temptation to be glued to your television or digital news media, and limit watching to one hour a day.

Be aware of triggers and trauma. The insanity of the world around us can make us feel unsafe and distrustful. In fact, many of my clients have been reporting an increase in anxiety and reactivation of old traumas, due to the pervasive news of sexual assaults, deceptive practices, gun violence, racism, war…and the list goes on. It is important to understand these triggers and develop self-compassion around them. Professional support can help us heal and develop a sense of safety and trust.

Spend time with friends and family. When we are feeling stressed out, anxious or depressed, it is so easy to isolate ourselves. Be sure to make time for the people in your life who nurture and support you.

Be mindful of negative thoughts. Negative thoughts of anger, fear, hopelessness and despair can proliferate automatically when the world around us seems chaotic. If we are not mindful about our thoughts, they can become epic novels! If you have a mindfulness meditation practice, make sure to practice and stay vigilant about discursive thoughts. If you do not have a mindfulness practice, there are many apps, such as HeadSpace that can be helpful.

Practice self-care. Stress is exhausting, both emotionally and physically. Get a massage, take a walk in nature, cuddle with your pets and loved ones. This is particularly important for those of us in the caring professions. Do all you can to not take on the traumas and stress of clients or patients. Maintain healthy boundaries. Be mindful not to take on others’ stress or trauma by maintaining healthy boundaries. Get support from others if you are experiencing secondary trauma or overwhelm.

Practice staying in the present moment, moment to moment. Being in the present moment is like an oasis in the desert. Mindfulness isn’t limited to sitting on a cushion. Our time “on the cushion”, so to speak, prepares us for out daily lives “off the cushion.” For example, if you are washing the dishes, be present with that: Notice how your hands feel in the soapy water. Feel the sensations of your sponge wiping the plates. When thoughts arise, simply return your attention to washing the dishes. This can be done with any daily activity, such as driving.

DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY

How many times has someone said to you “don’t take it personally”? You have probably heard it so many times that the phrase has lost all meaning. Yet, the truth is that almost nothing is truly personal. Further, not taking things personally allows us to experience self-compassion and compassion for others.

We suffer when we believe in a solid sense of “I.” This is the fundamental tenet of the first of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism. Developing an understanding of this First Noble Truth is the key to the experience of freedom and ease. Believing in the true existence of “I” is commonly referred to in Buddhism as ego-clinging. It can also be called self-importance.

Everything is a Projection

People do not see things in exactly the same way. Rather, what each of us perceives is a projection, based on numerous factors, such as habits, assumptions, culture, values and preferences. In fact, the only things the eye directly sees are colors and shapes.

I often help my clients develop their understanding of projections by looking at a plant in my office. I ask them what they see. They may say they see a pretty philodendron. When we analyze that, we realize that “pretty” is an evaluation and “philodendron” is a label. So, what is seen under the labels and evaluations? All that the eye truly registers on the optic nerve are colors and shapes.

Seeing mere colors and shapes does not satisfy our busy brains. We take the color and shape and add labels, evaluations, stories, and on and on until it becomes an epic novel. For example, from the color and shape, we label the plant and then evaluate it. Unless we are mindful about our proliferating thoughts, we may go on and think about the last time the plant was watered and if it needs pruning. We may even go further and judge ourselves for not having a green thumb.

It is the same when we see another person. We don’t stop with what we see directly. Rather, we go on to project all our own “stuff” on that person: good person, bad person, fat person, fit person, attractive person, unattractive person and on and on. Of course, human connection is far more nuanced than mere colors and shapes. However, an understanding that what another sees is his or her particular projection is helpful when we are feeling judged or criticized. This does not mean that constructive criticism is to be ignored. What we should remember, however, is that it is your behavior that is being critiqued, and not who you actually are.

Not taking things personally as the key to compassion and harmony

Not taking things personally is also a key to effective and responsible communication. When we put aside our ego-clinging and self-importance, we can better hear what another is actually saying. Behind every criticism or judgment is a need that is not being expressed in a compassionate manner. Instead of defending our position and taking what is being said personally, take a breath or two before automatically reacting defensively. Feel what your body is telling you. For example, does that clenching tightness in your gut feel like anger or hurt? When you understand what you are feeling, you can more ably discern how to respond, and even whether to respond at all.

For example, if a partner says, “you never wash the dishes,” what he or she is likely expressing is a request that you do the dishes. A typical kneejerk reaction would be to defend yourself, responding “that’s not true. I washed the dishes last Tuesday.” A defensive reaction such as this is likely to create more tension. Instead, we can respond with compassion, both for what we feel and for what our partner is asking.

If what is being said is intentionally mean or verbally abusive, it may be best to disengage in order to feel safe. Responding defensively may escalate an already difficult situation. By disengaging in those situations, you can best contemplate and choose the best choice of action for yourself under the circumstances.

Not taking things personally may take practice, patience and mindfulness in order to let go of our need to be right or defend our position. The result is a more kind and compassionate relationship, both with ourselves and with others.

© 2016 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.

LETTING GO IS NOT GIVING UP


“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery.
None but ourselves can free our minds.”

–Bob Marley, Redemption Song

We resist the idea of letting go because we tend to equate it with giving up or surrendering to another’s will. When we let go and accept what we are actually feeling and listen to what another is saying, compassion and freedom can arise. In contrast, when we immediately guard or defend ourselves, we cannot hear what another is actually saying. In addition, when we reflexively defend our position, we are dissociating ourselves from our emotions and the truth.

How to Let Go

The first step in letting go is to experience our feelings in a direct, non-judgmental and honest way. The best way to do that is to take a breath and feel your bodily sensations. For example, if someone says something to me that seems judgmental or accusatory, my go-to reflexive response is to immediately defend myself and my position. When that happens, the tension between us escalates, and neither of us truly hears what the other person is saying.

When I am mindful and take a step back before automatically reacting, I can hear both what the other person is asking, and what I am feeling in response. In his book Emotional Rescue: How to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers You , Dzogchen Ponlop calls this taking a “mindful gap.” Taking a pause rather than immediately reacting allows me to hold the present moment, feel the energy in my body, and look directly at my experience, without creating extraneous thoughts or story lines.

Using the example of someone saying something to me that seems judgmental or accusatory, when I take a mindful step back and observe my bodily sensations, I may feel a tightness in my heart. I breathe into that tightness and find that what I am feeling is hurt and sadness. Then I can get perspective and can choose to respond in a responsible way, hearing the need the other person is expressing rather than my hurt feelings. This does not mean that I give up feeling hurt, but rather, take responsibility for it in a compassionate way. I can then let it go and respond in an empathic and responsible way.

From Emotional Slavery to Emotional Liberation

This process is described by Marshall Rosenberg in his seminal book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life : “We take responsibility for our feelings, rather than blame other people, by acknowledging our own needs, desires, expectations, values and thoughts.” This is the key to compassionate communication and healing our relationships, with ourselves and all others.

The result of taking responsibility in this way is what Rosenberg calls “emotional liberation.” Freedom occurs when we experience and take responsibility for our feelings, understand what another needs and what we need, and make requests that are in accord with our needs. As Bob Marley notes in Redemption Song, when we own our feelings, we can free ourselves from “mental slavery” and let go.

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References:

Bob Marley, Redemption Song. © 1980. Kobalt Music Pub. America o/b/o Fifty-Six Hope Road Music Pub. Ltd. and Blackwell Fuller Music Pub. Ltd.

Dzogchen Ponlop. (2016). Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion Into Energy That Empowers You. New York: Tarchen/Perigee. https://www.amazon.com/Emotional-Rescue-Emotions-Transform-Confusion/

M. Rosenberg. (2015). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. 3rd edition. Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press.https://www.amazon.com/Nonviolent-Communication-Language-Life-Changing-Relationships/

(c) 2016 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved

COMPASSION: A REMEDY FOR TURBULENT TIMES

The world today is full of turbulence and uncertainty. We wake up to bad news every day. News of mass shootings, terrorist strikes, political dysfunction, natural disasters and other woes dominate the news and social media. On top of that, of course, are the personal struggles, losses and challenges of daily life. Compassion is the remedy for staying open and kind in turbulent times.

In these difficult times, it can be challenging to maintain open-heartedness and kindness toward ourselves and others. We may feel that we are being tossed by the stormy waves of chaos. We may experience anxiety or trauma hearing about all of the misfortunes and confusion in the world. These times can reawaken our feelings about prior struggles we have endured, whether personally or societally. For example, terrorist bombings can bring up our feelings after the attacks on 9/11, as if it were yesterday.

When we are experiencing inner turmoil, it can be easy to harden our hearts, isolate ourselves, and get swept away in the contagion of negativity, hatred, aggression all around us. However, these turbulent times also provide an opportunity to open our hearts and develop compassion for ourselves and all other beings. In Buddhist terminology, this is the path of the Bodhisattva, those who strive to benefit all beings. Compassion is the key that opens our hearts with kindness toward ourselves and all others.

THE THREE-STEP EMOTIONAL RESCUE PLAN

If we are not mindful, we may automatically react to hatred with more hatred. I had a chance to notice and work with this reflexive impulse recently. A transgender acquaintance told me that she was brutally attacked by two men for how she looks and dresses. I noticed that my automatic urge was to say “what idiots!” Instead I used the “Three-Step Emotional Rescue Plan” described by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, in his new book Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy That Empowers You.

Instead of immediately afflicting more hate, I took the first step of the three-step plan, “mindful gap”, and breathed in my bodily and emotional response. Stepping back in this way, I was able to take the second step, what Rinpoche calls “clear seeing”, to get a more panoramic view of the situation. In doing so, what I said instead is “those poor ignorant men, who are so frightened by people who don’t look like them.” This pacified my negativity, and allowed me to “let go” (the third step of the emotional rescue plan), with a sense of compassion for my acquaintance, for these men, and for all of us who sometimes act wrongly out of passion, aggression or ignorance.

COMPASSION FOR SELF AND OTHER

Self-compassion does not mean resignation or self-pity. Rather, it means allowing yourself time to feel your pain and difficult emotions without judgment. Notice when you are under the sway of negative self-talk, negative thoughts or intrusive memories. It is helpful to think of these negative thoughts and memories as leaves floating down the stream. Despite their seeming power, thoughts and memories are fleeting and ephemeral, and have no true substance.

The word compassion literally means “suffering with.” Self-compassion is the first necessary ingredient for extending your compassion to others, with the understanding that pain and suffering and the wish for peace are universal. You cannot really extend compassion and “suffer with” another without self-compassion.

This concept was beautifully described by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami in his book Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage:

One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone.
They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds.
Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence
without a cry of grief,… no acceptance without a passage
through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of true harmony.

I would like to offer some practical suggestions for maintaining compassion in difficult times:

• Take a break from the media. It can be tempting to watch the news all day and obsess about the woes in the world on Facebook and other social media.

• Take breaks from your devices. Staying glued to them day and night can increase stress and prevent us from being in the present moment.

• Turn off the television and all digital devices at least 30 minutes before bed. Instead, read a good book, cuddle with your pets, talk with your partner or take a warm, soothing bath or shower.

• Do something that you enjoy fully every day. Take the time to relish and appreciate those moments as they are occurring. Make the wish that all others have moments like these.

• Take time to smile and laugh. Exercising our smile muscles naturally relaxes us and creates feelings of positivity and optimism. It is said that laughter is the best medicine, and indeed it is. Moreover, a sense of humor creates perspective and more spaciousness.

• Practice self-care. It is important in stressful times to take care of your physical health. Although it may sound obvious, make sure to get plenty of rest, eat healthily, drink water and herbal tea, cut down on caffeine and alcohol.

• Create a good balance between caring for yourself and caring for others. Devoting all of our time and energy to the well-being of others without taking care of ourselves can result in what is called “compassion fatigue.”

• Maintain a healthy balance between alone time and time with others. It is important to take time for yourself, to meditate, journal, exercise, take a quiet walk or read. At the same time, be vigilant not to isolate yourself. Spending time with friends, family and your spiritual community are as important as alone time.

• If you have a spiritual practice, maintain it. This will help you open your heart to yourself and others.

• Notice the tendency to judge others. For example, when passing a homeless person on the street, notice any tendency to cast judgment. Instead, extend compassion to that person, knowing that he or she is suffering.

• One of the best and most healing ways to practice compassion is to extend it to those we see as aggressors and perpetrators. For example, as an eyewitness to the horrors of 9/11 in New York, part of my healing was to extend compassion to the nineteen terrorists who flew the planes into the World Trade Center. I remembered that they were young and confused and acted out of ignorant passion. This truly helped me heal.

• Feel gratitude. Despite all the ugliness in the world, there is much to be grateful for: friends and family, the beauty of nature, appreciation of others’ generosity and compassion, the song of a bird, the purr of a cat.

• If you are experiencing secondary trauma from witnessing or hearing about the horrors in the world, or if you are experiencing compassion fatigue or increased anxiety or depression that are interfering with your daily life, seek guidance from a spiritual advisor or psychotherapist. The world today can be overwhelming, and professional support can be helpful in alleviating your personal suffering.

References:

Dzogchen Ponlop. (2016). Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion Into Energy That Empowers You. New York: Tarchen/Perigee.

Haruki Murakami, (2014). Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

COPING WITH GRIEF AFTER LOSING YOUR JOB

 

Many of us think that grief should be reserved for the death of a loved one. However, grief can be experienced after any life transition, and one of the biggest life changes is the loss of a job. Here are some tips for coping with job loss.

  1. Remember to have compassion for yourself.

Feelings of shame often arise after losing a job. Shame is one of the most poisonous emotions humans experience. It can lead to self-punishment, which can come in the form of berating yourself for not doing a better job or for making a mistake that led to the job loss. Self-punishment may also play out in negative behaviors like substance abuse or promiscuity. Take time to understand that we all make mistakes, and that no one is perfect – including you. Self-compassion is so important in all aspects of your life. Be gentle and kind with yourself. Take the time to nurture yourself in body and mind. Do things that bring you peace and comfort, such as reading a good novel, getting a massage or taking a warm bath. Do them with the intention of caring for yourself with kindness and compassion, and breathe that into your heart.

  1. Develop skills to banish negative thoughts.

Thoughts of shame, blame, regret and doubt are inevitable after losing a job. The key is to not let those thoughts develop a life of their own. Mindfulness meditation techniques can be particularly helpful at this time. Learn to notice those negative thoughts as soon as they arise. Instead of following a thought, breathe into the feelings in your body that accompany the thought. It might be tightness in your chest or stomach, a clenching of your jaw or some other body sensation. Allow your breath to loosen those physical sensations. When the thoughts come up again, simply breathe into the accompanying body sensations. You may want to enlist the aid of a mindfulness meditation instructor or friend who practices mindfulness if this is a new technique for you.

  1. Take some healthy alone time.

The shame and other negative emotions that accompany losing a job may lead you to want to isolate yourself and avoid social interactions. It is fine to take some time to recover from the shock of losing your job. At the same time, it is important to use that time in a healthy way. Avoid the urge to overindulge in food or alcohol. Exercise can be extremely beneficial to help you combat depression, and the best form of exercise I have found is walking. Feel each footstep as it hits the ground, and when you notice yourself getting lost in negative thoughts, return to feeling your feet hit the ground. Treat yourself to a massage or other activities that help you feel better.

  1. Take some time each day to do something positive.

When we lose a job, we may feel hopeless or even worthless. Do something each day that reminds you of your worth. It may be something as simple as helping an elderly person cross the street, saying hello and smiling to people on the street or giving someone directions. You can offer to help your neighbors walk their dog, or volunteer your time for a cause you believe in. Being of service to others, even in the simplest of ways, will remind you that you are worthy and have something to offer.

  1. Express yourself.

It is so important to get the swirling emotions of grief out of your body in a way that is beneficial. Keeping all that stuff inside will only lead to depression and dis-ease. Keeping a journal is a great way to express yourself, and can help you not only get out all those messy emotions, but also may help you clarify what is now important to you and your next steps on your career path, or if applicable, your path to retirement.   If writing is not easy for you, there are other forms of expression that can also be beneficial, such as drawing or painting, dancing, singing or playing music or simply moving. The important thing is to move that energy outward.

  1. Evaluate and call on your support systems.

One of the most difficult things for me after losing my job many years ago as an attorney in the entertainment business was the loss of people I always believed would be there to support me, especially my colleagues in my corporation. It felt like they were staying away from me because they believed that the loss of my job might be contagious! This is what we in the grief field call a “secondary loss.” That is, the loss of my colleagues, and the lack of support from them was an offshoot of the loss of my job. I was given the opportunity to evaluate who was really there for me and, and to develop a greater appreciation for those who stepped forward to support me on my new path, and to actually allow myself to be vulnerable enough to let them to be of support to me. In retrospect, I now know that this process helped me develop as a compassionate human being in my personal and spiritual life, as well as in my professional life.

  1. Use this time to reflect on what is important to you.

Undoubtedly, people trying to be supportive have told you that losing your job can be a “blessing in disguise.” When you first lose your job, it feels like a blow and not a blessing. While you may not see your job loss as a blessing, it is nonetheless a great opportunity to take the time to reflect on, and perhaps re-evaluate, your passions, priorities and values. For example, when I was laid off from my corporate job as an entertainment lawyer, it felt like a death blow. I no longer knew who I was, because I had so strongly identified myself as my job. When I got over the shock of losing my job, it became apparent to me that I was being given the opportunity to find a new career path that more suited my spiritual path and my personal development. The loss of my corporate job and following the steps described above allowed me to fulfill my dream to become a psychotherapist and grief counselor and to express who I really am.

 

 

           

 

 

           

 

 

 

THE GIFT OF THE PRESENT MOMENT IN THE THERAPY SESSION

 

Therapy is not all about talking about the past, as many incorrectly assume. Rather, the psychotherapist’s goal is to work with the client in the here and now, while both therapist and client observe how past experiences inform the present moment. Psychotherapy works best when the past is being re-experienced in the present, in a safe and non-judgmental space. It is not about just talking about the past, but feeling the accompanying body sensations and emotions as fully as possible, and experiencing the energy and dynamics of the relationship between the therapist and client. As the client-therapist relationship grows, and the client is able to trust the therapist to maintain a safe environment, the client can re-experience the past more fully, and can then learn from and heal past wounds and transform the present.

For example, a client I will call “Joan” came to see me after the death of her father. Joan’s grief process was complicated by the difficult relationship she had with her father. It soon became apparent that Joan had a hard time in relationships with others, including me, as a result of her father’s domineering and controlling personality and her resulting lack of trust in herself and others.  Joan’s lack of a sense of safety and trust was apparent in our sessions together and in the dynamics of our relationship. Joan constantly questioned my motives and often threatened to quit therapy. She would get inordinately angry when she felt I was not listening to her, and resisted seeing her father as anything but perfect.

I knew from my own work that fear of judgment and abandonment are also core issues for me, as they are for many people. As a result, it was difficult for me to stay present with Joan, especially when she threatened to leave or criticized me. I often felt like I was walking on eggshells with Joan, afraid to say or do something that would set her off. I found myself becoming defensive, and tended to retreat into intellectual theories, trying to sound smart and look good. When I was able to slow down, take a breath, simply observe my experience and not react, I was able to choose a more authentic and skillful approach to my work with Joan.

I knew that staying with Joan’s experience of pain and confusion, and being a calm, compassionate and consistent presence in the face of her anger and threats, were the keys to helping Joan heal.   This was a long and exhausting process for both of us. Joan finally came to realize that I wasn’t going to abandon her, no matter how much she fought to keep me at a distance. As Joan gradually felt safe opening up to me, she was able to acknowledge that her father was not perfect, and that he did not provide her with a sense of safety and security in the world.  Like me, Joan tended to retreat into intellectualizing and analyzing, asking me “why” I thought her father was that way, and “why” she reacted the way she did. Joan would revert to over-intellectualizing and anger when her pain and vulnerability felt too raw and scary for her.

Giving Joan intellectual answers to her “why questions” was not what she needed. Instead, I continued to work on my ability to stay present and open with Joan, and we worked together on enhancing Joan’s ability to stay present and open with me. I encouraged Joan to notice when her anxiety with me increased and what triggers led to her urge to lash out. We focused on what she felt in her body: where the anxiety manifested physically, and what her body was telling her when she became anxious.

Staying in the body is a great way to directly experience the here and now. We Westerners tend to believe that our thoughts and mental processes are of more value than our bodies, but our bodies are far more useful in helping us access the truth. Joan eventually was able to get out of her head and into her body. She learned that she experienced tightness in her stomach when she became anxious. I asked her to fully experience that sensation by describing its shape, color, texture, temperature and other features. When Joan had a clear experience of that, I asked Joan what the sensations in her stomach were telling her. She saw that the message from her body was “run away, fight back. If you let yourself open up and be vulnerable, you’ll be attacked. You’re not safe.”

Joan’s increased ability to stay present in her body provided a number of important tools for her. She was able to tap into that feeling more quickly, and with a sense of curiosity instead of immediately striking back in a vain attempt to avoid her pain, anxiety and fear. The more quickly Joan could feel that sensation, the more she was able to choose whether she really needed to fight back, or to breathe into the sensations and allow herself to open up. As Joan started to open up, her awareness became more panoramic. She was able to slow down and experience the ebb and flow of energy between her and those she interacts with, and was more able to read others’ body language as well as her own in order to more ably attend to what was needed in that very instant.  Working together in the here and now of the therapy session, Joan and I have co-created a workable and authentic relationship.

One of the many gifts of therapy is what I learn from my clients, and my work with Joan made me realize that I must remain vigilant in staying open despite my fear of being judged or left. I became aware that when I felt Joan was about to attack me or denigrate what I would say, I felt a quickening my heart pound. I learned to breathe into that feeling and was more able to be present with Joan. As I became more authentic and vulnerable with Joan, she felt safe to be authentic and vulnerable with me. We can now appreciate each other and our shared humanity more fully, despite our pain and confusion at times.

Joan still has a long way to go to heal her shame and fear. The more Joan is able to stay with me in the present moment, the more she is able to do so in all of her personal and professional relationships. Joan is learning to slow down and open her heart to others without fear, and to be open to all that is available to her in the present moment.

 

The Importance of Self-Compassion

We throw the word “compassion” around so much that it can seem like a trite cliché.  Yet, the more I listen to my therapy clients, the more I realize that compassion — particularly self-compassion – is the key to healing ourselves and our relationships.

Compassion means “to suffer with.”  The word is generally used to describe empathy toward another.  However, I am clear that one cannot really have true compassion toward another without experiencing his or her own suffering and having kindness and empathy toward him or herself first.

The Sanskrit word maitri has been defined by Tibetan Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa as unconditional friendliness, particularly toward oneself.  Pema Chodron, a student of Trungpa’s and a master in her own right, observes:  ” I teach about maitri a lot. In fact, sometimes I think it’s the only thing I    teach. I also teach about        compassion a lot, but actually compassion is a form of maitri so this unconditional friendliness to oneself, it seems to be what most of us do not have”  (www.shambhala.org/teachers/pema).

I have made this same observation in my work as a psychotherapist.  Most of my clients come in complaining of depression and low self-esteem.  They think that something “out there”–even something as beneficial as caring for others —  is going to make them “better.”  When I tell them that what will heal their depression is kindness toward themselves, some look at me as if I were speaking a foreign language – the idea of self-compassion is that alien to them!

For many, the messages they received in their families of origin have contributed to their low self-esteem and negative self-talk. Western culture’s emphasis on perfection doesn’t help.  Because of these familial and cultural messages, many believe that’s just the way it is, and their beliefs about themselves can’t be changed.

For example, a client I’ll call “John” recounted in his first session with me his regrets about the breakup of his marriage, and concluded “I’m a failure.”  In my work using the modality of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, I challenged John’s belief, asking how doing something that he now regrets means he’s a failure.  I told him that he did the best he could at that time, and encouraged him that the key to his healing will be having compassion for himself and his human imperfections and neuroses. My homework for John was to simply notice when he calls himself a failure, what triggers it, and to start to challenge that long-fixed belief.  Changing these thoughts takes time, practice and discipline because they are so habitual and deep-seated, but it certainly can be done

I can challenge and have compassion for John, because I had to do the same work myself.  As I have recounted in other articles, after a period of regular mindfulness meditation practice, I was able to not only notice my negative self-talk, but realize that was just another thought, and that I could relegate those thoughts to my mental trash heap.  In fact, I told myself that if someone could have magically heard the way I talked to myself, they would have to turn me in to the police for abuse!

The Buddhist teachings on buddhanature or basic goodness are very helpful in developing self-compassion.  Those teachings tell us that we all have buddhanature, but due to our habitual tendencies and patterns, it is obscured and we have difficulty experiencing it.  An image I have found helpful is that of the sun in a cloudy sky.  The sun is always there, even on a cloudy day, but we can’t see it.  Imagine being in a plane, and seeing the sun in a clear blue sky after rising to an altitude above the clouds.  Indeed, the sun was there the whole time.

The next time you make a mistake or do something you consider less than “perfect”, take a breath, and try not to go on automatic pilot and start beating yourself up.  Instead, have compassion for yourself and all others who suffer in that way and remember the image of the sun in a cloudy sky.  Yes, you made a mistake and you can feel regret about it, and resolve not to do it again. Remember that your thoughts about your mistakes and imperfections are just fleeting clouds, and the sun of your self-worth is there the whole time.

 

 

 

Experiencing Physical Pain

I have practiced working with chronic pain for many years, using my mindfulness meditation practice as an aid. However, nothing prepared me for the experience the acute pain I recently endured.

I tried to relax around the pain, experience the physical pain directly without adding thoughts about it that lead to suffering, etc. – all the things that I tell my therapy clients and mindfulness meditation students. However, while in the throes of the most intense and excruciating moments of the pain, it was almost impossible to remember to breathe and relax. The following tips are intended as a reminder for myself , and an offer to others, when experiencing acute physical pain:

• Breathe and visualize creating space around the pain. Imagine soothing water or an elixir bathing the area in love and light.
• Listen to soothing music. Music can be so healing. Allow yourself to enjoy its beauty.
• Have someone rub your back, hold your hand, simply be a caring presence. It is so easy to isolate ourselves when we are in pain of any kind. Remember to reach out for support.
• Take a bubble bath, get a massage. Be kind to yourself.
• Listen to the song of a single bird. Notice the beauty of a single flower. Focusing on one thing helps calm the swirling emotions that accompany pain.
• Banish negative self-talk. This pain is not your fault or bad karma!

• Know that everyone experiences pain, and use this opportunity to develop compassion for yourself and others.
Of course, follow your doctor’s advice. When you are experiencing unusual pain, it is important to speak with your health care providers. Emotional and spiritual care are complements to physical care. As I have learned, pain is global – physical, emotional, social and spiritual. It is therefore important to support ourselves in all of these domains when experiencing physical pain.